Amidst austerity, Britain spends to commemorate a war

A Union Flag which was used to cover the bodies of dead soldiers during the First World War is lowered after the Armistice Day service at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 2009 in London, England.

Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in "Blackadder Goes Forth."

Ninety-nine years ago today, something happened in the Balkan city of Sarajevo that sent shockwaves around the world. The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That one killing led eventually to the First World War, in which some nine million soldiers died.

Today’s anniversary coincides with a row in Britain over the tone of  next year’s centenary commemorations. Military historians claim that the exhibitions and other planned events in the United Kingdom pander to a popular perception that the First World War was utterly futile, a completely avoidable and tragic waste of human life. This perception first  grew out of the work of the war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and was reinforced much later in the 20th century by the musical “Oh What a Lovely War” and the T.V. comedy series “Blackadder.”

Both portrayed Britain’s involvement in the war as a ludicrous and catastrophic blunder. But many historians argue that is false.

“The First World War was certainly tragic but it was not futile, it was a war of national survival for Britain. And it became a war of liberation for France,” says Prof. Gary Sheffield, director of war studies at Wolverhampton University. “Britain and its allies were defending themselves against German and Austro-Hungarian aggression. We need to recognize what a huge national achievement it was for Britain to come through the war victorious.”

The British government says it does not wish the centenary events to pass judgement on the causes of the war; in the words of one senior minister: “we don’t want this to become an anti-German festival.”

Sir Max Hastings -- author of a new book about the war, “Catastrophe 1914” -- accuses the British centenary planners of moral cowardice.

“Their view seems to be just to regard this as an occasion for hand-wringing and say: ‘Oh god! Wasn’t it awful? We were all to blame.’ They don’t want to upset the Germans.”

Hastings counters that this is an insult to modern Germany which has fully faced up to its militaristic past. He says Britain’s centenary events need not be triumphalist but they must be truthful and they should acknowledge that British soldiers died in a cause worth fighting for.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in "Blackadder Goes Forth."

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